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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Considering beauty

Can you see in it things modest and humble?

The Western ideal of beauty usually salutes things that are pretty, lasting or spectacular. In Japan we were introduced to another kind of beauty when we had the good fortune to spend a night at one of Kyoto’s oldest and most famous inns, the 300-year-old Tawaraya. The rooms were simple and spare, filled with objects that showed the wear of time but still exuded a sturdy presence that demanded respect. One of the principles of this establishment is that no one object should stand out above any other.

Leonard Koren, a chronicler of Japanese culture, says this approach fits in with wabi-sabi, which he calls “a beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble. It is the beauty of things unconventional.” This definition is from his book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Stone Bridge Press, 1994; available from www.amazon.com).

We were visiting Kyoto for the cherry blossom festival, which held another lesson about wabi-sabi. To see those pink petals falling gently to the ground, in ponds and on paths is to experience the impermanence of all things bright and beautiful. The Japanese have a special place in their hearts for things that are ephemeral. When we returned to the U.S., both of us had an altered view of beauty.


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December issue

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